Twain's BrandHumor in Contemporary American Culture

Twain's BrandHumor in Contemporary American Culture

Judith Yaross Lee

Print publication date: 2014

ISBN: 9781617036439

Publisher: University Press of Mississippi

Abstract

Samuel L. Clemens lost the 1882 lawsuit declaring his exclusive right to use “Mark Twain” as a commercial trademark, but he succeeded in the marketplace, where synergy among his comic journalism, live performances, authorship, and entrepreneurship made “Mark Twain” the premier national and international brand of American humor in his day. So it remains in ours, because Mark Twain’s humor not only expressed views of self and society well ahead of its time, but also anticipated ways in which humor and culture coalesce in today’s postindustrial information economy—the global trade in media, performances, and other forms of intellectual property that began after the Civil War. This book traces four hallmarks of Twain’s humor that are especially significant today. Mark Twain’s invention of a stage persona comically conflated with his biographical self lives on in contemporary performances by Garrison Keillor, Margaret Cho, Jerry Seinfeld, and Jon Stewart. The postcolonial critique of Britain that underlies America’s nationalist tall tale tradition not only self-destructs in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court but also drives the critique of American Exceptionalism in Philip Roth’s literary satires. The semi-literate writing that gives Adventures of Huckleberry Finn its “vernacular vision”—wrapping cultural critique in ostensibly innocent transgressions and misunderstandings—has a counterpart in the apparently untutored drawing style and social critique seen in The Simpsons, Lynda Barry’s comics, and The Boondocks.